Top stories of the year for Mountain Town News
Every mountain town in 2018 struggled with the pinch in housing availability at prices affordable to those working in the hospitality and service industries. Many towns struggled to come up with meaningful climate action plans. Several in Canada as well as Colorado grappled with rules for marijuana legalization, while a few Colorado towns worked through refinements of rules governing legalization.
Here are four other stories from New Mexico to British Columbia with common themes in 2018. They will almost surely be themes going forward in 2019.
Yet another big and head-scratching drought in the Southwest
Before widespread application of snowmaking, skiing was never a sure thing until after Christmas in Western resorts. In 2018, snowmaking wasn’t enough at some resorts in southwestern Colorado. The drought was just that bad.
In New Mexico, Taos had a new hotel, The Blake, to brag about, but snow itself was scarce. Conversely, Whistler did just fine, Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort had a banner winter and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole’s winter was strong.
Colorado still managed to finish with 7.1 million skier days among members of Colorado Ski Country USA. (Vail Resorts, which has four ski areas in Colorado, is not a member of the state-wide industry association).
But the lack of snow had repercussions far beyond ski town economies. The lion’s share of water in the Colorado River originates as snow in Colorado, with smaller portions from Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. And the river ran low — again.
From 2000 to 2018, the flows into Lake Powell were above average during only four years, reports the Bureau of Reclamation. The water year ending in October was 43 percent of average, the third driest year on record, ahead of only 2002 and 1977.
Most of Colorado’s ski areas are in the basin, but water from the Colorado River and its tributaries also supplies cities from Cheyenne and Albuquerque to San Diego and Salt Lake. Most of the river’s water goes to farms and orchards, however.
Entering the 21st century, the many dams in the Colorado River Basin collectively were at 94 percent of capacity of their storage. As November began, they were at 47 percent of capacity.
This long-term decline in water in the Colorado River Basin has water managers scrambling to rethink water use and storage options. Shadowing the discussions has been emerging evidence that a warming climate will produce even more drought years in Colorado and other southwestern states during decades to come.
Nearly every mountain town had people thinking about ways to make their communities more resilient in the face of these slow-moving but monumental changes in water supplies.
When smoke gets in your eyes: Thinking about wildfires
The 416 Fire between Durango and Silverton flared on June 1, producing a lot of smoke and crippling the summer tourism economies of the two mountain towns in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
At 54,000 acres, it fell well short of the threshold of 100,000 acres used by some students of wildfire to describe a “megafire.” But in the 21st century it was the second big fire near Durango after many decades of almost no fires.
Wildfire was a big story again in 2018 in most ski towns. Some had smoky skies, others had fires nearby, and almost every mountain resort town from Whistler to Ketchum to Aspen was thinking about how to make itself less vulnerable.
Then came the Camp Fire inferno that killed 85 people in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada during November, the most destructive fire in California history.
Experts predict many more will come in decades ahead, as aging forests become more susceptible to wildfire. Too, ill-advised fire suppression has only delayed the inevitable.
And again, climate change figures into the story. Scientists predict much larger fires for the next several decades, the result of drought but also more directly because of warming temperatures.
The fire north of Durango may have been started by embers from a coal-powered narrow-gauge chugging up the Animas River Canyon. But drought made the vegetation more combustible. The moisture content of lumber sold in Durango was higher than that of many standing trees. National drought maps even into 2019 show the Four Corners region bathed in deep burgundy, the most intense drought in the United States.
Then on July 3, smoke engulfed Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, even threatening the power supply to Aspen.
In Colorado’s Summit County, fire also flared near Silverthorne, at the foot of the Gore Range. It produced a scare, forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate homes. Thanks to efforts to create fire buffers between homes and forest, damages were relatively light.
Will it be enough for the next year? Maybe. But what may matter most is that nearly all the houses and other buildings in Summit County are located within what has been called the wildland-urban interface. Having wilderness out your backyard can be wonderful, but there can be consequences.
This is a story that will only get bigger in decades ahead in places like Ketchum and Park City, Steamboat Springs and Whistler.
The emergence of a second 800-pound gorilla in the ski world
In retrospect, of course somebody would come along to challenge Vail Resorts at its own game. Largely under the direction of chief executive Rob Katz, the company had crafted the Epic Pass to create customer loyalty and improve the annual revenue stream, even as it created geographic diversity.
California hurting for snow? Well, use your Epic Pass in Colorado. Or Whistler. And last year, as Colorado limped along, Whistler — in its first year as a Vail Resorts property — came online like gangbusters.
The new monster on the block was hatched by KSL Capital Partners and the Chicago-based Crown family, owners of the Aspen Skiing Co. Early in 2018 the unnamed company became Alterra, and then later gained its first chief executive, Rusty Gregory, the long-time boss at California’s Mammoth Mountain. As the 2018-19 ski season began, it had 14 major resorts. Vail Resorts didn’t sit idle, adding Crested Butte to its lineup, putting it at 10 major resorts and 3 urban ski areas.
David Perry, the No. 2 at Alterra, downplayed the competition with Vail Resorts in an interview early in 2018. There was plenty of money for both companies to make, he suggested. But if that suggests friendly oligopolies, others see a fierce competition shaping up.
What’s interesting is that skiing is not really a growing sport. Participation levels have grown little since the 1980s. Yet the rise in the stock price of Vail Resorts testifies there’s money to be made.
Stock prices started out at $16 per share at the initial public offering in 1997. Even in 2014, it stood at $77 a share. But by September, it had leaped to $294 a share — before tumbling at year’s end to $210 per share. Perhaps a reflection of the new competition from Alterra?
The two ski and mountain resort giants have headquarters in Colorado, Alterra in lower downtown Denver and Vail 25 minutes away in a suburb of Boulder. The National Ski Areas Association is about 25 minutes from each.
Aspirational energy goals lead to action
In 2018, thanks to rapidly declined prices for wind and solar, along with other small technological improvements, the 100 percent renewable goals espoused by many ski communities began looking increasingly attainable.
Colorado’s Wolf Creek Ski Area last year could credibly claim to be 100 percent powered by clean energy, the result of its part in developing a solar farm about 45 minutes away in the San Luis Valley.
Aspen Electric, which serves part of the city of Aspen, had achieved the same feat several years before. But the ski lifts of Aspen and also Vail Mountain are powered by electricity delivered by Holy Cross Electric, a co-operative.
In September, Holy Cross announced it planned to achieve 70 percent renewables by 2030. Furthermore, it laid out a strategy for achieving this, a combination of local power generation and imported renewable power from primarily eastern Colorado.
Later in fall came more announcements. Vail Resorts had pledged to be 100 percent emissions neutral, not just in Colorado but in all of its geographically dispersed enterprises. It inked a deal for a wind farm in eastern Nebraska to satisfy that declaration.
Then Xcel Energy, the dominant electrical supplier in Colorado, announced in December its goal of 80 percent renewables by 2030 and, by 2050, carbon-free power. The latter might involve burning coal and sequestering the emissions, or it might involve nuclear, company officials said.
The company delivers power to both Breckenridge and Nederland, two Colorado mountain towns that had previously adopted goals of 100 percent renewables. Also in Colorado, electrical co-operatives serving Durango and other mountain towns became increasingly assertive about embracing the opportunities of renewables.
Next will come electric cars and yet other incremental changes as the 20th century energy system gets turned upside down in ski towns and beyond.
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